Say “Iran,” and a web of complex political and religious conflicts commingle with ideologies of the modern state. Yet “Persia” evokes a broader picture of an ancient gastroculture that encompasses many lands and peoples. Food writer and photographer Naomi Duguid spent years exploring lands bound by tradition and custom, just as the territory was opening up to travelers from the West. In “Taste of Persia,” Duguid writes that connections in the region are found not just in places of worship, language and alphabet, but in kitchens, in gardens and at the table.
Borani are a staple in this part of the world: tender cooked vegetables served in thick strained yogurt that are topped with crispy fried onions. There are countless variations of borani available at Persian restaurants, but the dish is easy enough to prepare at home. Duguid makes hers by combining wilted spinach with sautéed onions and creamy yogurt, then finishes the dish off with onions, toasted walnuts or pistachios and a dash of saffron water. Give it a try!
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings
About 1½ cups plain full-fat yogurt
2 lbs spinach
2 tbsps sunflower or extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 tsp sea salt, or to taste
1 tbsp water
1 tbsp Saffron Water, for topping (optional, recipe follows)
2 to 3 tbsps walnuts, coarsely chopped and lightly toasted (optional)
Drain the yogurt to thicken it: Line a sieve or colander with cheesecloth or a cotton cloth. Moisten the cloth with water. Set the sieve or colander over a bowl and add the yogurt. Loosely cover the yogurt and set aside to drain for about 30 minutes.
Prepare the spinach: Meanwhile, trim the tough stems from the spinach. Wash the spinach thoroughly in several changes of water and drain well. Coarsely chop and set aside.
Heat the oil in a wide heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and lower the heat to medium. Sauté the onion until translucent and lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Transfer the onions to a plate and set aside.
Raise the heat to medium-high and sauté the spinach. Add about a ½-cup of water and cook, pressing and turning the spinach until it is thoroughly wilted and deep green, about 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer the spinach to a bowl to cool slightly.
Once the spinach is cool enough to handle, squeeze it thoroughly, one handful at a time, to remove any excess water.
Transfer the spinach to a bowl and add a ½-teaspoon salt. Mix well.
Prepare the yogurt: Transfer the thickened yogurt to a bowl; you should have about 1 cup. Add the remaining ½-teaspoon of salt and tablespoon of water to loosen the yogurt slightly, then stir. (You can save the whey for another purpose or discard.) Add the yogurt to the spinach and stir gently to combine, but not into a smooth blend. The mixture should still have patches of white and dark green. Taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary.
To serve: Top with fried onions, a sprinkling of Saffron Water and toasted walnuts, as preferred.
Grinding the saffron first into a powder will yield better color and aroma. Simply add a pinch of saffron, plus a few grains of salt or sugar in a mortar or bowl. Using a pestle or the back of a spoon, grind the mixture together to create a fine Saffron Powder.
For Saffron Water: Simply soak your Saffron Powder or saffron threads in a small bowl of hot water to maximize the potency of the threads’ flavor and coloring. You’ll want to use a generous pinch (approximately ¼ teaspoon) of saffron threads to ¼ cup hot water.
Pour the hot water over the threads or powder and gently stir. Transfer to a clean glass jar and let steep for at least 10 minutes, covered, before using it in a dish. The water’s orange color will deepen to a rich red-orange the longer it sits.
To store: Any leftover Saffron Water will keep in the refrigerator for a week or so, but the aroma will dissipate over time.
Excerpted from Taste of Persia by Naomi Duguid (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2016. All photographs by Gentl & Hyers.